book review: born blue by Han Nolan

Hi everyone,

I just finished reading an emotional novel called Born Blue by Han Nolan.

This book explores the life of a girl affected by the foster care system, drugs/ alcohol, and identity issues around race. And the power of having a passion for something that is used to hold together her sense of herself/ dreams for the future.

Janie’s first memory is of herself at three or four years old drowning in the ocean. Her mother, Linda, neglected her at the beach one day and she almost drowned.

From this point, Janie is in foster care. She portrays herself as incredibly observant and aware of her own emotions/ motives of others around her and of qualities of people. One of the first themes in the book is her use of what is considered African American dialect. As an example, the first couple sentences of the book go like this. “ My first memory of myself I be drowning. I close my eyes and feel myself getting pushed down under all that heavy water. My legs kicking and straining for the sandy bottom. Alls I find be more water rushing at me and over me, bit walls of water hitting me whole and tossing upside down, and I got no breath left , so I open my mouth and I swallow a gallon of salt water and I choke, and more water go up my nose and burn in my head, and I go for a breath again, and the whole time I thinking, Mamma’s gonna be mad at me, Mama’s gonna be mad. Then I ain’t thinking nothing, and all the struggling stops, and I wake up in a dark room I know ain’t mine.”

From her very first foster home, Janie insisted she was mixed race though she didn’t know who her father was, and that you just couldn’t see the dark tones in her skin but she absolutely was not purely white. To her white represented her mother and foster parents who were neglectful and she so closely alligned herself with the black culture/ language/ singers that to hear her talk you wouldn’t know the difference. In school, when she did go to school, she was called a wiga, a white person trying to be black. This conflict with race followed her throught the story.

Janie even at a young age is self reliant and knows that she can’t her foster parents who have mostly babies coming in and out of their house, and the mother Patsy can’t even keep a clean house as it smells terrible all the time to the point that you can smell it outside.

She does have her first friend in Harmon, her seven year old foster brother. He keeps a box of tapes of the blues singers, etta James, Billie Holiday ETC. The two of them go into the basement and listen to them. From the beginning Janie finds comfort and passion in their voices and emulates their style of singing until very soon she develops a love of singing.

Her second way of coping if she can’t sing at the moment, or listen to the singers is to emotionally eat. Her favorite thing is bread dipped in sugar. She overeats very easily and it’s clear she comforts herself using food.

At five or six her mother reappears in her life. Janie has a black social worker Doris, in her life who she also cdonnects with. Though the visits with her mother are spuratic and unsettling for Jannie, (she tends to really overeat during the times before and after the visit) she loves spending time with Doris. She and Doris and Harmon go to an african american church where again she is introduced to the singing of that culture. She is abgle to have an outlet and express herself through the singing and is noticed right away for her unusual voice for such a young child.

The next turning point comes for Janie when she finds out Doris’s daughter passed away. She asks Patsy her name and she says her name was Leshaya. Janie finds comfort/ solidity in that name. After school that same day her mother kidnaps her and sells her for drugs to a couplenamed Mitch and shell.

Leshaya didn’t know this at the time about the drugs part, just that her mom took her from her foster parents and gave her to the couple. Shell kept a clean house and Leshaya was better taken care of there. However it was there she started lying and stealing and seeming not to care. Things break down as Shell can’t seem to control Leshaya being rebelious at a young age, and soon the polece discover that the couple is dealing drugs.

Before social services can pick her up, Leshaya runs away to harmon’s house, by this time Harmon is adopted by a family called the James. The James are an amazing extremely loving couple who give Harmon and his little brother a solid home and have quite a lot of money and material things in their big house including a maid. They have a solid foundation in love and honesty and caring.

After some discussion with a new social worker, who Leshaya hates, they agree she can live with the James. Unfortunately even as she’s now eight or nine years old, the values of honesty, caring and respect aren’t ones that Leshaya has had instelled in her or seems able to embrace. The social worker made a comment to the Jame’s that she thought Leshaya had an attachment disorder and to not trust anything she says because she’s a liar. While this enraged Leshaya who overheard it, and admitedly was unprofessional, it was I feel true. Leshaya did display some symptoms of attachment issues including lack of empathy, hoarding food, stealing, and an inability to emotionally connect with others. Internally she has a good connection to “the ladies” the blues singers she so idealizes, and she has had up to this point a love and connection with Harmon. However as months go by it becomes clear that Leshaya is Jealous of Harmon and how easily he gets along with his family. That jealousy turns into anger and spitefullness.

Things come to a head when she’s caught stealing even from Harmon. And when she starts associating with a boy Jay, who is a drummer in a band she joins.

After a big fight Lishaya steals all the moneey she can find packs up her stuff and calls up the guy from the band. The guy knows about a town with recording studios where Etta James supposedly recorded.

So she joins his band and they drive out there. This is when she starts to do drugs. Her first night of drinking and doing drugs she has unprotected sex with Jay and becomes pregnant. She’s in the band for awhile before this and I forget what exact conflict drove her out. Leshaya can’t seem to hold a relationship for long due to her seeming uncaring prickly surface or stealing or both.

Social services finds out she’s pregnant and she moves to Joy’s house. Joy is a very nice woman who homeschools Leshaya and teaches her about how to take care of a baby. However Leshaya overhears Joy and her social worker behind her back talking about the baby being taken into care. The day after Leshaya has her baby, who she names Etta H. James, (for Harmon), she escapes. She brings her baby to Harmon’s house where she knows she’ll have a good home. Oh the other point is that before she left the Jame’s she left her underwear in Harmon’s bed so it looked like the two had had sex planting Harmon as the father.

After she crashes at a hotel physically sick and exhausted from just giving birth. The maid at the hotel has compassion for Leshaya and takes her in. Again this only works for a few months until Leshaya’s stealing sets in. What’s horible to watch is it’s clear Lashaya isn’t an uncaring or shelfish person. She’s hurting and behaves as she does due to the terrible emotional abuse comitted by her mother, when her mother neglected her and sold her for drugs, and by the foster care system for providing her with inadiquate foster parents. For her to really let someone in would probably break down her whole sense of needing to be independent, and all her defenses in the same way that insisting she’s black is an emotional defense.

After staying at that family’s house, she finds Paul through another connection. By this time she’s fifteen years old, she had Etta at fourteen I believe. Paul is different from anyone she’s ever known. At first the two are at odds as he’s extremely perfectionistic and says he has no use for her singing as it’s not technically correct. Leshaya learned to sing by ear and was not used to any kind of feedback or criticism about it, only people being amazed at her natural talent. Finally the band manager gets the two settle down getting Leshaya a coach while afirming to Leshaya she is a good singer just needeing improvement. Another of Leshaya’s strengths is that she learns easily when she wants to and can take things in well and intigrate them when open to it. This being music, her passion she works well with the coach and Paul is happier.

As she improves as a singer Paul becomes more interested in her personality. Her language which he calls “an afro white speak” and her personality in general. He as many others have, tells her plenty of times that she doesn’t care about anyone but herself. However he sticks by her and often looks at her with a deep sadness because he loves her and is afraid for her. He knows that her cold exterior comes from deep hurt. And while she maintains she’s not hurt, he says that he knows every note she sings expresses that pain.

It is while the band is traveling back from a recording session that Paul teaches her the basics of reading and writing music and she writes her own song down. This is a huge boost to her sense of self to have her own music in writing and to be able to share it with the world. She is able to record her song and it gets on the radio, again something solid that she can hold pride in no matter what.

Sadly things eventually fall apart at Paual’s inevitibaly. Despite the care Paul gives her and the consistency, and her admitedly saying this is the first place she’s felt safe in her life, her old patterns resurface. She becomes jealous when Paula’s old friend Lisa comes over. Paul had told her not to do drugs and yet she starts spending time with someone Paul said to stay away from and was doing drugs. Unfortunately she winds up in a very scary situation where the two do drugs and the man she is doing it with winds up dead.

This guy happens to be an old Friend of Paual’s. He is torn and heartbroken. Loving Leshaya and knowing on one level why she does this and another grief stricken about what she’s done to his life. He kicks her out but packs the music books for her.

Throughout her drifting through life Leshaya will call her mom’s number which she always remembers. Usually there is no answer. After leaving Paul’s she does get an answer. An incredibly incoherent mom says she can come stay with her. Leshaya ends up going to a beach house that she never even knew about, but was in her mother’s family and something that seemed a place kept pure from the drug lifestyle Linda had lived.

Lehsaya only plans to come and See Linda for a couple hours and really wants to flee the scene when she learns her mother has AIDS afraid she’ll “catch it” by touching her mother or her things. Before she can leave she’s greeted by an old friend of her mother’s Mr.s Trane. She sort of set things up to where she insisted Leshaya stay and help take care of her mother and “patch things up between them”

It is when Mrs. Trane locks Leshaya in her mother’s room to clean up after her mother has an accident during the night that they face each other. Everything that happened between them seemed to get washed away in the singing of Leshaya’s song which was written to express the abandonment and other huge emotions related to her mother and that piece of her life. Her mother knows the wrong of what she did and Leshaya is able to forgive her. Her mother after hearing Leshaya sing confirms that her father was in fact white, and that he died of a drug overdose. Even with this knowledge Leshaya can’t drop the black identity.

Leshaya stays with Mrs. Trane for three months and takes care of her mother in their last days. She forms a connection with Mrs. Trane. When her mother slips into a coma Leshaya tells her mother everything that happened over her short but profound sixteen years of life, including having a baby herself.

After Linda’s death Mrs. Trane says she can live at her house and studdy music. Leshaya only stays for one night however. Her time with her mother and Mrs. Trane changed her profoundly. She had some touching discussions with her mother’s friend. She showed Leshaya pictures of her mother’s early life and how happy she was. And then how she went off that path and into drugs and alcohol at a young age just like Leshaya. She forces Leshaya to face the fact that she and her mother are alike in their inability to have healthy relationships. When she uses the phraise “you’re both bridge burners” of course Leshaya has no idea what that means. Mrs. Trane’s description touches Leshaya in a lasting way.

She says,” What happens when you cross over a bridge, then you turn around and burn it? Can you get back over the water?”

“No not on that bridge you cain’t.”

, “That Paul person you told your Mama about. You had a good thing working with him. Then you burned your bridge by going against your agreement, taking those drugs, getting involved with his best friend. You see? You made it just about impossible to return. You make it impossible for anyone to have a relationship with you. You use people up.”

While these may seem like harsh words they’re said out of true caring and wisdom from a person who watched someone else, her own mother follow this same path that lead to her death and having literally no one but she and then Leshaya in her life at the end. All this touched Leshaya deeply and the term “bridge burner” resonated with her.

She left Mrs. Trane’s house because she wanted to break the pattern of drugs, unhealthy relationships and abandonment by in her family. She went to Harmon’s house with the intention of reclaiming her baby. However while looking in the window she realized that this wasn’t the right choice. Her daughter was almost tree years old. All she knew was harmon, his parents, and now his girlfriend as her family. Etta was african american, and at this point at least Leshaya admits that she’s not. She also doesn’t have the skills/ ability to take care of her child that she needs, and she knows that taking Etta away from all she knows would be a mistake.

The book ends as she drives in a taxi away from the house. In an interview with Nolan she says though people have written in asking for a sequil she prefers we imagine what life holds for Lishaya. Personally I see Leshaya trying to pursue a new way of being in relationships with others/ making better choices. But it being an uphill struggle. Hopefully she’ll find people like Paul and Mrs. Trane who can offer her constancy, love, and direction things she’s so lacked in her life and would need to mature. That being said she still is only sixteen though after journeying with her it feels she’s lived a lifetime. She should have an oppurtunity to pursue her dreams of singing in a healthy way without drugs. To start having relationships that she can care about others and not just use them. And eventually be able to have her child in her life. It’s a long road for her but I feel she has found the key to turning the corner.

I recommend this book to young adults interested in any of the subjects. I feel it would be a good book to use in schools in junior high or high school to explore themese of identity, race, abuse, and following your dreams.


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